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Posts from the ‘Rock music’ Category

Fifty years later

Bryan Ferry was kind enough to invite me to contribute the introductory essay to the programme for Roxy Music’s 50th anniversary concerts in North America and the UK, so I went along to the O2 last night to see the closing date of the tour and to witness what might, I suppose, have been their final performance together. I don’t like arena shows, but once the sound had settled down it was possible to enjoy what the four members who played on the debut album in 1972 — Ferry, Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson and Phil Manzanera — and their six auxiliary musicians and three backing singers were up to. And of course there was that funny bitter-sweet feeling you get while watching something you first saw in a basement with a few dozen other people half a century ago scaled up to world-conquering proportions in its ultimate iteration. In the essay I wrote about the inevitability of the process by which what had begun as an experiment would become a performance, but hints of the original art-school excitement and uncertainty managed to survive even today’s production values and resources, and the lighting and the back-projections — endless highways for “Oh Yeah”, Warhol images for “Editions of You” — made it beautiful to watch. The show began with reminders of the slightly gawky early stuff (“Re-make/Re-model”, “Ladytron”) and finished with full-throttle favourites (“Love Is the Drug”, “Virginia Plain”) but in between came a long passage in which the pace slowed to a resting heartbeat as luxuriant textures and romantic descending patterns took over. Introduced by the wordless “Tara”, the sequence of “The Main Thing”, “My Only Love”, “To Turn You On”, “Dance Away”, “More Than This” and “Avalon” swept elegantly by in one long candlelit swoon. Not a bad envoi, if that’s what it was.

Where Jimi led

If you’re interested in guitar-playing, you probably need to know about Ava Mendoza. I first heard her at Subterranea in New York in 2016, during the Winter Jazzfest, when she played with a band led by the trombonist Jacob Garchik and including two other guitarists, Mary Halvorson and Jonathan Goldberger, and a drummer, Vinnie Sperrazza. You can see them in the photograph; she’s on the extreme left, with the Fender Jaguar.

Even in the company of the great Halvorson, Mendoza caught my ear. Born in Miami, Florida in 1983, she studied with Fred Frith at Mills College in Oakland, California before moving to New York in 2013. She seemed to have found a way of feeding the sound of early rock and roll guitar — think Dick Dale, Watkins Copicat echo units, and a time before tremolo arms became known as whammy bars — into the kind of thinking shared by the several generations of guitarists freed from the orthodoxies of jazz guitar by Jimi Hendrix, a list going from Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, Ray Russell, Vernon Reid and David Torn to Bill Frisell, Elliott Sharp, Marc Ribot and Kim Myhr. She showed strength, inventiveness and confidence.

That first impression is confirmed on a new album which features her in a trio under the leadership of the veteran bassist William Parker, completed by the drummer Gerald Cleaver. It’s called Mayan Space Station, and it’s the sort of music you can easily imagine Hendrix making if he were still around today: loose, improvisatory, inspired, collective, which are all the words that come to mind when you think of his playing from more than 50 years ago on tracks like “Manic Depression”, “Love or Confusion” and “Third Stone from the Sun”, carried into the 21st century.

I was thinking about Hendrix anyway, since I’ve been enjoying a newly published book called Voodoo Child, in which two Los Angeles-based writers, my old Melody Maker colleague Harvey Kubernik and his brother Kenneth, compile an oral history of the guitarist’s life and work. It’s not a biography in the usual sense but a sort of 360-degree journey around the short but extraordinary life of the man who arguably had more influence on contemporary music than any individual instrumentalist since Charlie Parker.

The vast majority of the interview material is new, culled from dozens of conversations with those who knew, observed or were affected by Hendrix. They range from Brian Auger, John Mayall and Andrew Loog Oldham through John Echols of Love, Robby Krieger of the Doors, Ed Cassidy of Spirit, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane and James Williamson of the Stooges to Michelle Phillips, Ernie Isley, Michael Des Barres, Kim Fowley, Jerry Wexler, Billy Cox, Jim Keltner, Nils Lofgren, Patti Smith, Nels Cline and many others. Of course there’s lots of stuff about Monterey, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, as you’d expect. But the authors aren’t afraid to dive into less obvious areas. In one of the later sections several witnesses, including Hugh Banton, the Van der Graaf Generator organist, and John Etheridge, the Soft Machine’s guitarist for the past few decades, have interesting things to say about the specifics of the equipment Hendrix used.

If I have a criticism, it’s that — like most Hendrix books — it doesn’t follow the money or go deeply into the late period when he became involved with black artists and activists such as the singer Emmaretta Marks and the percussionist Juma Sultan, getting closer to the world where free jazz intersected with political action. But as a kaleidoscopic assembly of impressions from an orbit around Planet Jimi, it has a value of its own.

The eminent composer and flautist James Newton, a professor of jazz studies who has taught a Hendrix course at UCLA, talks about Hendrix’s relationship to jazz: “Check out the floating quality in ‘(Have You Ever Been to) Electric Ladyland’. When Hendrix hits the guitar three times to establish the tempo, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, it’s in 3 but not really — most people hear it in 4/4… a polyrhythm is established, which is not something you hear in pop music, then or now. It’s Mitch (Mitchell) channelling Elvin (Jones).”

That was something you couldn’t miss when you heard Are You Experienced or saw Hendrix live in 1967, at least if you were conversant with the work of the John Coltrane Quartet in the first half of the decade. Mitch had clearly paid attention to Elvin’s sense of time — the 3-against-2 which is at the heart of the rhythms that came from Africa and became what we call swing. And Hendrix, who hadn’t (as far as I know) played jazz during his early career on the R&B circuit, responded to what he was doing. In that sense, Mitch was a liberating influence on Jimi.

It’s interesting to speculate on what would have happened had Chas Chandler recruited a more four-square British rock drummer of the time — say, Aynsley Dunbar (who was under consideration), Keef Hartley or John Steel, his former colleague in the Animals — to the Experience, as might easily have happened. John Mayall points out that “Jimi came to England and a blues world… going back to Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner, who started the blues boom. This attracted a lot of musicians who now had something new to inspire them.” But it was not just a purist’s blues world. Korner’s absolutely seminal Blues Incorporated was packed with jazz musicians, from Ginger Baker and Danny Thompson to Dick Heckstall-Smith and Art Themen, as were Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and the Graham Bond Organisation. Even had Hendrix never listened to Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman before leaving the US in 1966, he would have absorbed something of their spirit from the musicians he heard and worked with in London.

James Newton connects Hendrix to the huge change taking place in jazz two decades after the heyday of bebop. John McLaughlin (in a quote attributed to Colin Harper’s biography, Bathed in Lightning) remembers taking Miles Davis to the Monterey Pop film just to see Jimi, and the effect it had on the trumpeter. The effect on guitarists — including McLaughlin — was even greater, in terms of encouraging a more adventurous approach to tone, texture and effects, and more enduring. As we can hear in the work of Ava Mendoza and others of her generation, it shows no sign of abating.

* Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s Voodoo Child is published by Sterling. William Parker’s Mayan Space Station is on the AUM Fidelity label: https://williamparker.bandcamp.com/album/mayan-space-station

Lenny the K strikes again

The last time Lenny Kaye put together a compilation album, it changed the world. Well, a significant part of it, anyway. The meticulously assembled double album released in 1972 under the title Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-68 became a touchstone for the generation that created the punk movement, first in the US and then in the UK. Listening to the Standells, the Seeds, Count Five and the 13th Floor Elevators, kids who’d been drowning in Tales from Topographic Oceans discovered that pop songs worked best when they were two minutes long and built on a minimum of chords, with lyrics that stuck to the teenage basics.

It’s funny to think that although it made its appearance only four years after the release of its most recent track, Nuggets was — intentionally or otherwise — a historical document. But it has never sounded dated, then or now.

Lightning Striking is something different. A two-CD set, it’s the support act to Lenny’s new book of the same name, subtitled Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll, in which he reminds us of the talent that was lost to music writing when he swapped his Remington for a Stratocaster and threw in his lot with a young poet named Patti Smith in 1971.

I met him the year before that, when he was working at Village Oldies on Bleecker Street — “ten dollars a shift and all the records I could filch,” he writes in the book — and contributing to publications including Rolling Stone and Cavalier, a Playboy rival. His album reviews for Jann Wenner’s rock-culture magazine were outstanding, written with an evident love for the music. We bonded over doo-wop and the Velvet Underground, and In New York in 1971 he showed me where the individual Velvets had taken their places on stage during their nine-week season the previous summer upstairs at Max’s Kansas City, where he’d been to see them many times.

Back in 2004 Lenny wrote a fine book titled You Call It Madness, on an unexpected subject: a study of the crooners of the 1930s, including Rudy Vallee, Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby. Now, a few weeks after his unforgettable appearance with Patti at the Albert Hall, comes his history of rock and roll in a series of very enjoyable vignettes, from Memphis in 1954 to Seattle in 1991 via New Orleans, Philadelphia, Liverpool, San Francisco, Detroit, New York City, London, and Los Angeles and Norway, who share the penultimate chapter (on Metal, of course).

It occurs to me that Lenny and I — born three months apart — belong to the last generation with first-hand engagement in the whole story, from hearing Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Frankie Lymon before we were into double figures and the Beatles, the Stones and Motown when we were in our early teens. I’m not sure of the deeper significance of this, but in Lenny’s case it certainly informs his writing with a precious first-hand enthusiasm. And I’m glad he’s chosen to frame the story of the music through that lens.

In the chapter called “Liverpool 1962”, for instance, he illustrates the effect the Beatles had on him when the British Invasion was in full spate: “It made me want to find out, or at least feel what it felt like. In the summer of 1964, after patiently absorbing barre chords from a friend who could play some of the diminished progessions that Paul brought to ‘Till There Was You’, I bought a cherry red Gibson Les Paul Special and a Magnatone 280 amp (true vibrato, the same kind Buddy Holly played) from a kid down the street who had given up the calling. On November 7 the Vandals (Bringing Down the House With Your Kind of Music!) debuted at the Chi Psi fraternity on the Rutgers University campus.”

I love how he freewheels through the early history. “How to sing like a girl. In the voice of a girl. That is Philadelphia’s tradition.” That’s true from Frankie Avalon to the Stylistics. By 1966 he’s getting closer to the music. A lyricist uncle bankrolls and co-writes Lenny’s first recording, a 45 called “Crazy Like a Fox”, a folk-rock-protest disc released under the name Link Cromwell. A year later he’s speeding across America with his friend Larry in a ’56 Ford, heading for San Francisco and the Summer of Love, seeing Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Avalon and Quicksilver Messenger Service at the Fillmore. In a chapter called “Detroit 1969” he’s great on the story of the MC5, who foreshadowed so much, and the Stooges, with roles for the likes of John Sinclair, Danny Fields, Jac Holzman and Jon Landau.

Back in New York in 1971, he’s invited to accompany the unknown Patti Smith at St Mark’s Church on 10th Street. It was Sam Shepard’s idea. One rehearsal, in her apartment: “She chanted poems and I followed along, watching how she breathed. Simple chords, all I knew.” The story of how the Patti Smith Group emerged from the scuzzy Downtown scene of the early ’70s, intertwined with those of the New York Dolls, CBGBs, Television and the Ramones, is the centrepiece of the book and worth the price of admission alone. And it was Lenny who, before a show in Detroit in 1976, introduced Patti to the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith, her forever soulmate.

Later on he takes us through Grunge and Death Metal, although the tracks representing those chapters on the album will probably be the least played in my house. But there are some gems: I didn’t know the hair-raisingly direct “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” by the ’50s Chicago blues guitarist Pat Hare or “Marcella” by the Castelles, a gorgeous slice of Philly doo-wop. And there’s the trick that compilations sometimes pull off, of making you listen to something extremely familiar with fresh ears. In this case, for me, it’s Elvis’s “That’s All Right” and Cliff’s “Move It”, both of which suddenly sounded once again like messages from another planet.

If the album is fun, the book that inspired it is a wonderful extended blast of insider knowledge with outsider perspective, expressed in the language of rock and roll. Lenny’s mission with Nuggets almost 50 years ago was, he says, “to make sure my favourite records kept on living.” Apart from anything else, Lightning Striking shows how well he did his job.

* Lenny Kaye’s Lightning Striking is published in the US by Ecco and in the UK by White Rabbit. The album, compiled by Lenny Kaye and Alec Palao, is on Ace Records.

Loud and quiet moments

The car, I find, is a good place to listen to music. Mine is old enough to have a CD player, and I hear lots of new stuff in what is a very satisfactory sound box. But a funny thing happened when I put on the new King Crimson album, a two-CD “official bootleg” of their return to touring in the US between July and September this year. As I drove along, listening to the music, there were noises that made me think something had happened to the car: maybe a piston had blown, or the rear suspension had collapsed.

Wrong. It was the clattering set up by the three drummers who currently make up almost half of the current King Crimson, and whose synchronous but sometimes fairly abstruse playing occasionally gives the impression of a complex machine making its own decisions.

Robert Fripp has form with this sort of thing. Mike Giles, his band’s original drummer, could make 4/4 sound like a study of the calculus of infinitesimals. Later on, the short-lived combination of Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford created a provocative blend of the obsessively precise and the utterly random. Nowadays, when King Crimson take the stage, it is with the three drummers — Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison — arrayed in front of the other four musicians.

The saxophonist/flautist Mel Collins, the guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, the bassist Tony Levin, and Fripp himself (seated, as always) take up their positions behind the battery of batterie. I don’t know why Fripp chose this configuration, but the music — recorded at two venues, the Anthem in Washington, DC and the Egg in Albany, NY — begins, after a short spoken introduction by the leader, with a thunderous percussion-only barrage that made me think of a 21st century Sandy Nelson, rendered in Warhol-style triplicate.

The rest of the two hours is devoted to King Crimson old and new, from “21st Century Schizoid Man”, “Epitaph” and “Islands” through “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless” “Red” and “Discipline” to a few examples of their more recent work, with which I am considerably less familiar. The respect shown to the greatest hits is absolute; the material is performed with technical excellence and fidelity to the originals but also a spirit that makes the clambering, juddering lines of something like “Level Five” — from 2003’s The Power to Believe — into more than mere exercises, while the rendering of “Starless” has a beguilingly eccentric grandeur that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. Jakszyk’s vocals recall those of Greg Lake and John Wetton, the washes of mellotron strings and flutes add an authentic period flavour, and Collins pops up occasionally to remind us what an exceptional and unjustly underappreciated player he has always been.

Arriving in the same package was something very different: a box of eight CDs called Music for Quiet Moments, a compilation of the solo pieces Fripp recorded between 2004 and 2009 in many different venues around Europe and America and released individually as downloads between May 2020 and April 2021. This music proceeds from the experiments that began in the autumn on 1972, when Brian Eno invited me to his flat in Maida Vale to hear something he’d been up to, using two Revox tape machines to record and loop Fripp’s guitar, creating a slow-moving, unusually textured, quietly mesmerising sound that could function as foreground or background. Released the following year under the title (No Pussyfooting) on Island’s low-price HELP label, it was the beginning not just of Frippertronics and Fripp’s more recent Soundscapes but of Eno’s work with ambient and generative music.

These new Soundscapes range in length from a handful of minutes to three-quarters of an hour. Some of the pieces share titles that include “Elegy”, “Pastorale”, “Seascape” and “Evensong”, indicating the moods Fripp is painting with his guitar and its associated effects, often producing sounds resembling slow-moving clusters of violas and cellos. Miraculously, at least to my ears, the risk of passivity is avoided. Some tracks, like “Strong Quiet I and II” from Brussels in 2009, feature an improvised solo guitar line over the drifting clouds of sound: recognisably Fripp, completely lacking in ego-play, always worth following where they lead.

Is this background and/or foreground and/or something in between? Music for listening, or to accompany other activities, or to create a sense of nothingness? From Atlanta in 2006 come pieces titled “Affirmation” and “Aspiration”, a reminder of the names John Coltrane gave to the individual movements of A Love Supreme. And in interviews (such as the one in the December issue of Uncut magazine) Fripp is unafraid to use terms such as “devotional”, “sacred” and “meditative” to describe what’s going on. He isn’t more specific. But the music there to be used, in whatever way you feel appropriate.

* King Crimson’s Music Is Our Friend / Live in Washington and Albany 2021 and Robert Fripp’s Music for Quiet Moments are released on the Panegyric label (www.dgmlive.com). The photograph of Fripp was taken by Tony Levin in Chicago this year.

The blues came down from Richmond

Around the corner from where I live is an apartment that was once a crash-pad for Paul Simon, Jackson C. Frank and John Martyn. If I carry on to the train station, I pass the building where the Rolling Stones played the early gigs that attracted the attention of Andrew Loog Oldham and the four Beatles. On the way I see another building, now a Nando’s, where Eric Clapton and his fellow art students would while away an afternoon over a single cup of coffee. A couple of doors above it is the site of a clothes shop that was once vital to the Mod culture. I walk on past an independent book shop which, 50-odd years ago, was owned by Pete Townshend (who still lives a few hundred yards away, up the hill, past the house where Syd Barrett once had a flat). Beyond the station lies a rugby ground, the site of the festivals that, starting in 1961, created the enduring pattern for such open-air, multi-stage events.

If, instead of heading for the station, I were to walk in the opposite direction, I’d come to the footbridge to an island where, as the ’60s picked up speed, trad jazz gave way to R&B bands in a semi-derelict hotel whose ballroom featured the Cyril Davies All Stars, Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men with Rod Stewart, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Downliners Sect, the Art Woods, the Graham Bond Organisation, and so on.

The place that featured the Stones was the Station Hotel in Richmond, where the back room hosted the first incarnation of the Crawdaddy Club. The coffee bar was called L’Auberge. The men’s boutique was John Simon’s Ivy Shop. Townshend’s book shop was called Magic Bus. The rugby ground is the home of Richmond RFC and London Scottish; their clubhouse became the second Crawdaddy, where the Yardbirds — mostly local boys — took flight. The Eel Pie Island Hotel is the legendary venue in the middle of the Thames at Twickenham, which opened with local trad jazz bands in 1956, closed in 1970 with Quintessence and burned down while being demolished the following year. Those are some of the locations, and there are many more, including the Hanging Lamp folk club, held in a church crypt, where the local teenager who would become Elvis Costello went to listen to guitarists like Davey Johnstone and John James.

The story of how Richmond and Twickenham — and particularly Eel Pie Island — became a seed-bed for the British R&B bands that, in conjunction with the Mersey Beat, reset the course of rock music is such a great one that I’ve often thought it was worth a proper book, particularly after I came to live here 20 years ago and realised that the buildings and the pavements had tales to tell. I never got around to it. But now someone else has, and he’s done it so well that I’m glad I didn’t.

Andrew Humphreys spent many years working on travel guides, first for Lonely Planet and then for Time Out. He lives in Richmond and runs a publishing company of his own. When he had the idea for the book, he offered it to three well-qualified music journalists, none of whom was interested. Eventually he decided to do it himself, and I’m glad he did because it could hardly have been done with a finer combination of basic enthusiasm, thorough research and authorial skills. Apart from getting the facts right and in the correct order, he’s talked to many of the people who made up the audiences and customers at these places, creating a vivid portrait of an extremely exciting and important time.

Alongside the musicians and their listeners, several key figures are identified. The first is a local businessman called Michael Snapper, who bought Eel Pie Island Hotel — built in 1830, mentioned by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, in and out of fashion over the decades — in 1951, when it was all but abandoned. The second is a young trumpeter named Brian Rutland, who persuaded Snapper to let his Grove Jazz Band use the dilapidated ballroom. The third is a rum cove called Arthur Chisnall, who managed one of Snapper’s shops in Kingston, saw his vocation as scooping up lost youth and putting them on the straight and narrow, took over the running of the venue and, responding to police demands that it be properly organised, created something called the Eelpiland Club, which soon became a focal point for beatniks, students from the area’s several art colleges, and other adventurous types.

The fourth is Harold Pendleton, a former accountant who loved jazz, managed the Chris Barber Band, ran the National Jazz Federation, founded the Marquee Club in an Oxford Street basement in 1958, organised the NJF’s first National Jazz Festival at the Richmond Athletic Association’s grounds in 1961 and saw it grow into an event of national significance, with the trad and modern jazzers gradually pushed out by the young R&B bands, first represented in 1963 by Georgie Fame, Graham Bond, Cyril Davies and, at the bottom of the bill, the young Stones.

The fifth is Giorgio Gomelsky, a refugee from Soviet Georgia who arrived in London in 1955, aged 21, and soon became known on the scene as a hustler and fixer, a colourful character never short of an idea. Through knowing Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies he met Brian Jones, whose new band he heard at a pub in Sutton in February 1963. It was Gomelsky who created the Crawdaddy for them at the Station Hotel later that month, first with an audience that could be numbered on one hand but soon with queues down the street. Gomelsky printed flyers, ran ads in the Melody Maker, buttonholed journalists on the music papers, and in general hyped the Rolling Stones as best he knew how. He did a great job, but within weeks he’d lost them to a younger hustler, the 19-year-old Andrew Loog Oldham, who came to see them in Richmond and persuaded them he could take them to the next stage. As, of course, he did, leaving Gomelsky to manage the Yardbirds and cook up countless further schemes — some good, some bad, none of them quite as good as the Stones — before his death in New York five years ago.

All this and much more is in Humphreys’ book, which is well illustrated with period photos, flyers, posters and adverts, and useful maps on the end-papers. It’s also hugely enjoyable, written with a delightful touch and an ear for the colourful anecdote. Here, for instance, is a trad-band musician describing the task of getting their instruments across to Eel Pie Island on the original chain ferry, before the footbridge was installed in 1957: “A decidedly dodgy affair, like the D-Day landings but without the gunfire.”

I hope I haven’t made Raving upon Thames sound like a book of local history. In fact it’s about us — all of us, even if we weren’t there.

* Andrew Humphreys’ Raving upon Thames: An Untold Story of Sixties London is published by Paradise Road (www.paradiseroad.co.uk). The photograph was taken at Eel Pie Island in 1960 for a feature in Weekend magazine headlined “Down Among the Dead Beats”.

Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’

Probably the best compliment I can pay to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary is to say that it’s made in the spirit of the music. His switchblade editing, abundant use of split-screen and fantastic material from all sorts of archives creates a tone parallel to the sounds we’re hearing and to the lives we’re watching.

An important decision was not to include testimony from anyone who wasn’t actually a witness to the events the film records. Every voice you hear bears the glory and the wounds of what happened in that short time when Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico rewrote the rulebook. Cale is wonderfully engaged with a story that, for him, ended badly. Tucker still sounds like the real glue of the band. The voices of the departed members are heard in archive interviews. Among others who shed light are the veteran avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the actress Mary Woronov, the superfan Jonathan Richman, the composer La Monte Young, the scenemaker Danny Fields, Merrill Reed Weiner, Lou’s sister, and Martha Morrison, Sterling’s wife. (No Gerard Malanga and only the briefest glimpses of Edie Sedgwick, which is a bit of a surprise.)

It’s quite a demure film, given the milieu; the sexual merryground is glimpsed but not explored. Neither is Haynes interested in deep musicology. He wants impressions rather than details, which keeps the film moving. He doesn’t try to analyse the divide in Reed’s personality between the brutal and the tender. But we do get a feeling for the characters, as when Cale sums up Nico quite beautifully: “She was a wanderer. She wandered in and she quietly wandered out again.” And we certainly get an idea of how the chemistry between Long Island doo-wop fan Reed and Welsh avant-gardist Cale turned 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side into such a potent musical laboratory. Haynes leaves us with a lovely colour clip of Reed and Cale performing “I’m Waiting for My Man” during their reunion at the Bataclan in Paris in 1972, with Nico waiting in the wings.

Throughout the film, the great songs — “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Sister Ray”, “White Light/White Heat”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Rock and Roll”, “Sweet Jane” — are allowed to emerge in the perfect setting. And as they issue from big cinema speakers, you may yourself experiencing once again the seismic effect they had when you first heard them, brand-new. There were times when I wanted to cheer.

Hipster, still eminent

Of course there’s nothing really new to be heard on the pair of live albums Donald Fagen has just released, one under his own name and the other under that of Steely Dan: Northeast Corridor, a selection of the Dan’s songs recorded at the Beacon Theatre in New York and Boston’s Orpheum Theatre, and a concert version of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo masterpiece, pieced together from those and a couple of other venues across the US. Why would there be? The original recordings were pretty close to perfect in the first place, or as close as Fagen and his late partner, Walter Becker, could make them across days, weeks and months in state-of-the-art studios.

So what’s the point? Perhaps it’s to allow us to replicate the sensation of hearing them for the first time, which is what even the slightest shift of emphasis or ornament allows. The slightly adjusted harmonies of the chorus to “Kid Charlemagne”, the melodica on “Aja”, the drum coda to “Reelin’ in the Years”, the brand-new rhapsodic trombone intro to “Things I Miss the Most”, the ceding of the solo bridge passage of “Maxine” to a member of the close-harmony backing choir — they’re small changes, but they help us to see the bigger picture anew. Otherwise the proportions and trajectories are much as they were on the originals — although in the case of The Nightfly the overall feel is a little more, shall we say, fatback: fuller and funkier, but not so much as to change the tone.

Maybe the most significant change is to Fagen’s voice, and even that doesn’t really alter the listener’s response. Always the instrument of someone who had to be persuaded to to take the lead on his own songs, and the more authentic for that, age has cost it some of its strength but none of its capacity to beguile and engage. It was always a sidelong voice, and his delivery of the confessions of a graveyard-shift DJ on The Nightfly‘s title track seems even more affecting.

When Fagen made The Nightfly, he was looking back 20 years to the time immediately before the Kennedy assassination, when capitalism seemed ready to share its material abundance throughout the western world. Now, another 40 years later, in a period of disillusion and uncertainty, the evocation of that period’s Madison Avenue-inspired optimism carries extra weight.

The musicianship across both albums is, of course, immaculate. Keith Carlock’s drums and Freddie Washington’s bass make those mid-tempo rhythms as crisp as a brand-new button-down shirt. The two-brass, two-reeds front line swivels on a dime (with a special mention for Roger Rosenberg’s baritone solo on “Black Cow”, and no blame to tenorist Walt Weiskopf for not quite being Wayne Shorter on “Aja” or Michael Brecker on “Ruby Baby”). Guitarist Jon Herington produces a great Denny Dias tribute on the euphoric “Bhodisattva” and pianist Jim Beard romps through “Glamour Profession”.

As a coda to the Steely Dan album, Fagen and his superlative quartet of backing singers leave the stage to a single-chorus instrumental arrangement of “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry”, a blues-ballad from a 1958 Joe Williams album. It’s a reminder of the depth of Fagen and Becker’s knowledge and love of music — as are these two albums as a whole. Which, come to think of it, is by itself a good enough reason for their existence.

* Steely Dan’s Northeast Corridor and Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live are out now on Universal Music. The photograph of Fagen is from the booklet with the Steely Dan album and was taken by Nick Antaya.

Patti Smith at the Albert Hall

When she was 15 or so, the woman said, she’d dreamed about a certain boy, about walking down the street holding his hand. And now here she was, performing at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, and she was going to sing one of his songs. And at the end of a most elegant version of “One Too Many Mornings”, Patti Smith said quietly: “Bob Dylan.”

The last time I’d seen Patti was in 1995 at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, when she and Dylan were touring together. She came on to sing “Dark Eyes” with him during his acoustic section, and then she joined him in the encores for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. It was nice to be reminded last night of the history they share, and she honoured it beautifully on the very stage where, 55 years ago, he sang “One Too Many Mornings” with another band.

But that was just one highlight in a night crammed with them, starting with the lyric to “Piss Factory”, the B-side of her first single in 1974, which she declaimed unaccompanied to start the 90-minute set. That was electrifying, and at the end of the evening my only regret was that she hadn’t done more reading.

But would I have swapped that for the lovely “Grateful”, the driving Velvets drone of “Dancing Barefoot”, the collective exhilaration of “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a most surprising and tender mid-set version of Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun”, Lenny Kaye’s dedication of the Stones’ “I’m Free” to Charlie Watts, the cathartic “People Have the Power”, which Patti wrote with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, or the thunderous closing run through “Not Fade Away”, when the instruments cut after the last “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be”, allowing Patti, the band and the entire pan-generational audience to bellow “You’re gonna give your love to me”?

What I also admired was the way she and the band — Kaye and Jackson Smith (guitars), Jesse Paris Smith (piano), Tony Shanahan (bass guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) — put on such a well calibrated show while keeping their garage-band rawness and honesty. Jackson Smith’s raga-rock solo on “Dancing Barefoot” was a beauty, as was Daugherty’s ability — probably learnt from reggae drumming — to leave spaces within a bar without losing power.

But I wasn’t really taking notes. I was on my feet, with everyone else.

All things must be remixed

“When I make a record,” Phil Spector said, “I don’t want to tell musicians, ‘Well, eventually it’s going to sound like this — you’re going to be in more echo.’ No, put it on now. You can’t take the echo off ‘Be My Baby’. You can’t take the echo off ‘River Deep — Mountain High’. It’s on Tina Turner forever. That’s my art.”

Not, however, when it comes to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Just over 50 years after the release of the hugely successful solo triple album, which Spector co-produced with the former Beatle, a new version of the album has appeared, in which the tracks have been remixed by Dhani Harrison, George’s son, and an engineer, Paul Hicks. It’s a project intended, they claim, to bring out Harrison’s contribution by clarifying the sound. It seems to me that, a few months after Spector’s death, what they’ve really been attempting to do is diminish the impact of Spector’s contribution and thereby to reduce what might be seen, in the light of his conviction on a charge of murdering the actress Lana Clarkson in a shooting incident at his home in 2003, as a stain on the record’s reputation.

The excuse for this apparent exercise in detoxification seems to be that George once said he might have liked this group of songs to have been produced with a lighter touch. I don’t think that’s good enough. He and Spector worked together over a period of months on the recording and mixing at Abbey Road, Trident and Apple studios. If Harrison had wanted the stripped-down sound that Spector produced for John Lennon on the Plastic Ono Band album that same year, he had plenty of opportunity to ask for it. Very clearly he didn’t. And nor did he choose to do anything about it in the three decades between the release of the album and his own death in 2001.

I spent £17 on the basic two-CD edition of the new version, as many will have been persuaded to do, and to me all the remixing does, by altering many of the aural dimensions and perspectives that Spector brought to it, is to diminish the grandeur and the impact of the music, robbing it of its character. It’s no longer the sharply focused record he and Harrison mixed, mastered and passed for release. It’s more ordinary. And, of course, the two people primarily responsible for its conception and execution are no longer around to offer their opinion.

Once again, I’d say that if Harrison had wanted his guitar lines to be louder, or his voice to be closer to the foreground, he could have had those things at the time, on demand. And if he’d wanted people to pay $999.98 or £859.99 for an “uber de luxe edition” including eight vinyl LPs, five CDs, a Blu-Ray disc, two books, a bookmark made from a felled oak tree in George’s garden at Friar Park, 1/6th scale “replica figurines” of George and the garden gnomes from the album cover, and a set of prayer beads, all housed within “an artisan-designed wooden crate”, I guess he’d have asked for that, too.

Having read all the advance publicity material, I was curious enough to wander down to Duke of York’s Square on the King’s Road in Chelsea to have a look at a promotional stunt devised to tie in with the release. This is a physical interpretation of Barry Feinstein’s cover photograph from the album, installed close by the entrance to the Saatchi Gallery. It’s by “world renowned floral artist Ruth Davis”, and you can see the result in the photograph above.

The idea is that you can take George’s place on the stool — you’ll have to bring your own hat and gumboots — and get a friend to take your photograph, which you can then circulate on your preferred social-media platform. It’ll be gone by the weekend, but to me it looked like bits and bobs left over from that ludicrous and expensively misconceived “mountain” currently positioned next to Marble Arch, at the top of Park Lane. Marble Arch was better without it, just as All Things Must Pass sounds better without someone else’s second thoughts. Some things are best left alone.

Alone and palely strumming…

There they were, half a century ago, alone and palely loitering, with their long dark hair and their flares and their Martin guitars and their debut albums on Transatlantic, regulars at Les Cousins or the Troubadour, peering up from bottom of the bill at Implosion or next weekend’s rain-drenched festival, finding slots on Sounds of the ’70s and the Whistle Test, maybe even Top of the Pops if they struck lucky with the right song — a “Catch the Wind”, a “Baker Street”, a “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”, a “Streets of London” or an “Alone Again (Naturally)”.

British male singer-songwriters mostly came out of the local folk scene, which seemed to imbue them with a leaning towards the wistfully romantic. Their American counterparts, springing from close exposure to the blues and bluegrass traditions, seemed more robust in temperament. The exception would be Paul Simon, who shared the British tendency to what it would be unkind to call feyness — but then he’d spent time playing the London folk clubs as part of his formative experience, soaking up the vibe.

There was more to them than that archetype, of course, and the whole genre is interestingly captured in Separate Paths Together, a new three-CD box subtitled “An Anthology of British Male Singer-Songwriters 1965-75”. Compiled and annotated by David Wells, it parades an extraordinary range of artists in solo guise. Most of the usual suspects are here: Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, John Martyn, Donovan. Others — Kevin Ayers, Peter Hammill, Richard Thompson, Jim Capaldi, Mike Heron, Gary Farr, Dave Cousins — had made their initial reputations as members of bands. Free-standing solo artists range from Pete Atkin, who came out of the Cambridge Footlights putting melodies to Clive James’s effortfully intricate lyrics (maybe the nearest thing ever devised to an English version of French chanson), to Peter Skellern, whose deceptively artless “Hold On To Love” still sounds like a great pop record,

Among my favourites are David McWilliams’s “Days of Pearly Spencer”, as enduringly perfect an evocation of 1967 and the days of pirate radio as could be imagined; Bert Jansch’s brief, unadorned “Tell Me What Is True Love”; Mike Cooper’s “Paper and Smoke”, with its fine horn arrangement; Andy Roberts’s warmly nostalgic “All Around My Grandfather’s Floor”, from a poem by his Liverpool Scene bandmate Mike Evans; and Murray Head’s “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” — a record that everyone at Island in 1975 expected to be a huge hit, but mystifyingly wasn’t.

The alone-and-palely-loitering archetype is particularly well represented by Keith Christmas’s diaphanous “The Fawn”, Dave Cartwright’s poised “Song to Susan” and Duncan Browne’s lovely “Journey”, which kicks off the whole collection and makes me regret a crudely dismissive review I gave him when he supported Lou Reed at the Sundown in Edmonton in 1972 (not the happiest of juxtapositions, it must be said, and I wasn’t much kinder to Lou). I’d offer an apology, but he died of cancer in 1993, aged 46.

The tracks I’ve mentioned are on the first two discs, where the genre is stretched to include something like the heavily arranged “Jesus Christ Junior” by Patrick Campbell-Lyons, a member of the original Nirvana. The third disc is largely devoted to also-rans (Bill Fay, Chris Baker, Paul Brett) and anomalies (Steve Gibbons, Jona Lewie, Crispian St Peters), including Mike Hart’s “Disbelief Blues”, a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” homage, and Al Jones’s extremely creepy “Jeffrey Don’t You Touch”, a clumsy portrayal of a sex abuser that wouldn’t get anywhere near the radio today.

The two most obvious omissions from the set’s 66 tracks represent the genre’s opposite poles: the introspection of Nick Drake and the extroversion of Elton John. I guess their absence is explained by permission issues. Cat Stevens isn’t represented, either. But you already know what they sounded like.

* Separate Paths Together is out now on Cherry Red’s Grapefruit Records label. The photograph is of Duncan Browne; perhaps someone out there can tell me who took it.